Cancer Lingo

by Maggan

Doctors, like lawyers, are trained to speak in mysterious ways. What you and I will call a bruise, a doctor will refer to as a “hematoma,” dividing cancer cells are referred to as “mitotic activity.” Below is a glossary to help you decode some of the medical vocabulary as it relates to breast cancer.


Two chemo therapy drugs.  Adriamycin and Cytoxan.


Cancer in a gland, breast cancer is a form of adenocarcinoma.


Abnormal, but not cancerous, development, of glands in the breast, for example: sclerosing adenosis = benign breast lesion.

Adjuvant Therapy
Treatment given after surgery to improve chances of avoiding a cancer recurrence. Adjuvant therapy can be systemic such as chemotherapy or hormone therapy. It can also be local to the cancer area, such as radiation therapy.


Generic name is Doxorubicin. A chemo therapy drug. Also referred to as the “red devil.” (It stains your urine red and has unpleasant side effects.)


Generic name for Arimidex, an aromatase inhibitor, which blocks estrogen production in post-menopausal women.

A drug to prevent or reduces nausea.

Area of Concern

An image of an area inside your breast that looks like it could be cancerous.


Arimidex is an aromatase inhibitor.See below.

Aromatase inhibitors

These drugs limit limits the amount of estrogen the body produces in postmenopausal women by preventing the conversion of steroids made by the adrenal gland into estrogen. In post-menopausal women the adrenal gland is the main source of estrogen. Aromatase inhibitors, like Arimidex, do not work in pre-menopausal women whose ovaries still produce estrogen. Examples of aromatase inhibitors are Arimidex (Anastrozole) and Femara (Letrozole).

Atypical Hyperplasica
A condition where an increased number of cells look abnormal, but not yet cancerous, under a microscope.


The arm pit region


Not cancerous. Benign tumors grow but do not spread to other parts of the body, regardless of size.


Involves both sides of the breast


Characteristics of a molecule or a process. Used to predict response to medication or predict development of a disease.


  1. Excisional where the tumor is completely removed
  2. Incisional where part of the tumor is removed
  3. Core biopsy where part of tumor and tissue is removed with a wide needle.
  4. Needle aspiration biopsy where part of the lump and some tissue is removed with a fine needle aspiration.

Birad Score

Birad score stands for “breast imaging reporting data” Used to rate mammograms images.



3-probably benign

4-probably malignant


6-confirmed malignant

When a piece of radioactive material, such as a seed or a wire is implanted inside the body at the tumor site to kill cancer cells with radiation.

A gene on chromosome 17 that normally helps to suppress cell growth.  A person who has inherited a defective BRCA1 gene has a higher risk of cancer.

A gene on chromosome 13 that normally helps to suppress cell growth. A person who has a damaged BRCA2 gene, normally inherited, has a higher risk of cancer..

Breast Cancers

The most common type of breast cancers are:

In-situ ductal carcinoma

Cancer cells that remains in the milk ducts and have not spread from    where    they started to grow. Usually referred to as DCIS

Infiltrating ductal carcinoma

Cancer cells that started to grow in the milk ducts of the breast, but that have broken through the wall of the ducts and spread to other tissue. They have the ability to migrate throughout the body (to metastasize.) .

Infiltrating lobular carcinoma

Cancer cells that started in the lobules, rather than the ducts but behave the same way as ductal carcinomas. Lobular carcinoma feels different to the touch from invasive ductal carcinoma and is much less common. It usually has a thickening to the breast instead of a defined tumor. Lobular carcinoma that has not spread outside the lobuls is referred to as lobular carcinoma in situ (LCIS).

Medullary carcinoma

Is similar to ductal cancer aned can metastasize to other parts of the body. But according to,  the difference is found in the general appearance of the cells. Cancer cells of medullary carcinoma look very similar to the gray matter of the brain, or the medula,

Inflammatory breast cancer

Is the most unusual form of breast cancer and the most aggressive and invasive. Because it does not present itself with tumors it is hard to detect with a mammogram. Inflammatory breast cancer normally starts in the milk ducts but rapidly metastasizes to the outermost layer of the breast’s skin, making the breast look swollen, red and bumpy and therefore often referred to as “peau d’orange” (orange skin.) Inflammatory cancer is normally treated with radiation and chemotherapy before surgery.

Breast Conserving Surgery (or breast sparing surgery)
When parts of the breast is removed, but not the whole breast. Types of breast-conserving surgeries are:

-lumpectomy (removal of the lump),

-quadrantectomy (removal of one quarter)

-segmental mastectomy (removal of the cancer as well as some of the breast tissue around the tumor and the lining over the chest muscles below the tumor). Also called breast-sparing surgery.


Treatment with drugs that kill cancer cells.

Comedo Cells

The most agressive type of cancer cell in DCIS (ductal carcinima in situ) and the most likely to lead to a cancer recurrence. Non-comedo type cells are papillary, micropapillary, and cribriform. All refer to the cell pattern.

Core Biopsy
The removal of a tissue sample with a wide needle for examination under a microscope.

Cytotoxic Drugs

Refers to drugs, such as chemo therapy drugs that kill cells, including cancer cells with their toxicity.


Stands for computed tomography. Gives 3-dimensional images of the inside of the body. The images are generated by x-rays. Some CT Scans have high doses of radiation, much higher than the typical x-ray.


Cytoxan, adriamycin and 5-fluorouracil,  three type of drugs in one type of chemo therapy. Usually given 4-6 times every two to three weeks.


Refers to the three drugs cytoxan, epirubicin, and 5-fluorouracil given together in one type of chemo therapy.


Cytoxan, methotrexate, and 5-fluorouracil, a three drug type of chemo therapy. Usually administered for six months.

Ductal carcinoma in situ. Cancer cells in the lining of a breast duct that have not spread outside the duct


Stands for Deep Inferior Epigastric Perforator. Breast reconstruction after mastectomy using fat and skin from your tummy, but not your stomach muscle, to create a new breast.

Cancer cells are rated from well differentiated to undifferentiated. The grading is: well-, moderately, poorly- and undifferentiated cells. Well differentiated tumor cells resemble normal cells that grow and spread slowly. Poorly and undifferentiated cells have changed and look different than normal cells. They tend to multiply and grow quickly.


Cells where the basic chromosome number is doubled. A diploid tumor indicates a more favorable outcome.

Distant Metastatis
Cancer cells that have spread from the original site in the breast to other parts of the body. Breast cancer cells tend migrate to the bone, the brain, lungs, and liver via the lymph node or vascular system.


Generic name for the chemotherapy drug Adriamycin. Also referred to as the “red devil” because of its unpleasant side effects and it stains the urine red.

Deoxyribonucleic acid is the molecules inside a cell that carries the genetic information. It is passed on in families from one generation to the next.

These cells that look abnormal but are not cancerous.


Also referred to as HER-2/neu, see below.

Estrogen Receptor Negative

Cancer cells that do not need estrogen to grow. Also called ER- and these cells do not respond to estrogen blocking hormone therapy.

Estrogen Receptor Positive

Cancer cells that need estrogen to grow.  Also called ER+. They respond to estrogen blocking hormone therapy.


Generic name: Raloxifene. Works much the same way as Tamoxifen (Novaldex) by binding up estrogen in the breast to prevent cancer cells from growing.

Surgical removal of tissue. Also known as resection.

A benign smooth-muscle tumor. Also referred to as leiomyoma.

Flow Cytometry

A test to measure the component of a tumor. For example, the number of live cells, their size, and shape etc.

Generic Marker
A change in DNA that indicates an increased risk of developing a specific disease.

Gleason Score
The Gleason score is a grading system of how cancer cells’ aggressiveness on a scale from one to five. The score given is summary of two numbers, those of the two most common cells seen under the microscope. A Gleason score of 5 indicates a more aggressive tumor if it is the sum of 3+2 than if it is the sum of 2+3.

Gluteal Free Flap

Refers to breast reconstruction where the skin and muscles from the buttocks are used to create a breast. This type of surgery requires a highly skilled surgeon to get good results.

A liver tumor. (Not to be confused with hematoma, bruise.)


Heparin is an anticoagulant (blood thinner) to prevent the formation of blood clots.  It is controversial since it has many negative side effects.


Also called Trastuzumab. A chemo therapy drug used to treat women who are HER2 positive, and have advanced breast cancer and distant metastasis.


Also called erbB-2.  A protein involved in normal cell growth. It is found on some types of cancer cells, including breast and referred to as the oncogene. Too many copies of this gene may  indicate a more aggressive cancer. Her-2/neu positive patients are at higher risk for recurrence than HER-2/neu negative patients. Certain chemo therapy drugs are more effective on the HER-2/neu gene than others.

High-Dose Chemotherapy
Aggressive treatment with such high doses of drugs with severe side effects to bone marrow, and other areas. This type of chemotherapy usually requires follow-up with bone marrow or stem cell transplants.

Hormonal Therapy
Medication that binds, blocks, or removes the hormone estrogen in women with estrogen positive breast cancer.  Example of hormone therapy drugs are SERMs and aromatase inhibitors.

One of many chemicals made by glands in the body. Hormones circulate in the bloodstream and control the actions of certain cells or organs. Examples of some hormones: estrogen, progesterone, testosterone, insulin, adrenalin, calcitonin, and vasopressin.

Abnormally high number of cells in an organ or tissue.

Refers to cancer that grows slowly.

Intensity-Modulated Radiation Therapy. A 3-dimensional radiation therapy that uses computer-generated images to show the size and shape of the tumor. It reduces the damage to healthy tissue surrounding the tumor.

Induction Therapy
Treatment to shrink the cancer and to evaluate response to a drug. It is usually followed by additional treatment of remaining cancer cells.

Inflammatory Breast Cancer
A type of cancer where breast looks swollen and red, often with “dimples” in the skin, like an orange. The redness and warmth is the result of cancer cells blocking the lymph vessels in the skin.

Invasive Cancer
Cancer that has spread beyond the layer of tissue where it first developed. Infiltrating cancer.

Latissimus Dorsi

Surgery to replace a pectoral muscle removed during a radical mastectomy. It can also refer to breast reconstruction using the muscle below the shoulder blade, the latissimus dorsi along with a portion of the skin. With this procedure an implant is usually also required to get a full breast.

A condition when excess fluid collects in tissue under the arm and causes swelling as an unintended side-effect of surgery to remove lymph nodes in the axilla or radiation therapy.

Lobular Carcinoma
Cancer that begins in the lobules (the glands that make milk) of the breast..

Magnetic resonance imaging. A procedure where radio waves and a powerful magnet are linked to a computer to produce detailed pictures of areas inside the body. MRI give better images of organs and soft tissue than other scanning techniques, such as computed tomography (CT) or x-rays.



Can be done by x-ray machine to create breast images on x-ray film, Or digital which shows digital images on a computer screen. Digital mammograms have greater clarity.

X-Ray or digital technique to create a picture of the inside of the breast.

The edge of the tissue removed in cancer surgery along with the tumor. The margin is referred to as negative or clean when no cancer cells are detected in the tissue around the tumor. The margin is “positive” or “involved” when cancer cells remain and re-excision is necessary to remove more tissue from the tumor bed.  A margin of at least 2 mm must be clear from cells in order to be considered a clean margin.

Surgery to remove the breast.

Metastatic Cancer
Cancer that has spread from the place in which it started to other parts of the body.

Tiny calcium deposits in the breast that cannot be felt but are detected on a mammogram. They may be cancerous or benign.

Small numbers of cancer cells that have spread from the primary tumor to other parts of the body and are too few to be picked up in a screening or diagnostic test.

Medullary Breast Carcinoma
A rare breast cancer marked by a type of white blood cell, lymphocytes, in and around the tumor.


Breast cancer cells that have spread from the breast to other parts of the body, most often to the bone, the lungs, the liver, and the brain.

Mitotic Activity

The process of cells dividing. Cancer cells divide more quickly and more profusely than normal cell. Therefore when activity is high, cancer is suspected.


Refers to cells dying.

Needle Biopsy
The removal of tissue or fluid with a needle. A wide needle is used in a core biopsy. A fine needle is used in a fine-needle aspiration biopsy.

Negative Test Results
A test that fails to show the presence of cancer cells.

Neoadjuvant Therapy
Treatment given before the primary treatment. For example, chemotherapy to shrink a tumor before surgery..

An abnormal growth of tissue. Neoplasm is usually a sign of cancer.

Node Negative
No cancer cells found in the lymph nodes.

Node Positive
Cancer cells have spread to the lymph nodes.

Oncotype DX Test

This test is done by Genomic Health. It is designed for women with node negativ, estrogen positive cancers, whose tumor are between 1 and 2 cm. The reason is to determine if these women need chemo therapy since 20-30% of all node negative patients are suspected to have cancer cells elsewhere in the body.

The test examines 21 different markers in the tumor to predict distant recurrence on a scale from 1 to 100. Below 18, very low risk, intermediate range 19-29, high risk for recurrence, above 30.

A gene that normally directs cell growth. The gene may be inherited or caused by an environmental exposure to toxic materials and other carcinogens.

A physician who is a cancer specialist.

An oncologist treats patients with chemotherapy and hormone therapy.

A radiation oncologist treats patients with radiation.

A surgeon oncologist is specialized in cancer surgery procedures.

Open Biopsy
A procedure in which a surgical procedure is done to remove tissue which is then examined by a pathologist. The procedure may be performed in a doctor’s office or in the hospital. It may be done under local anesthesia or general anesthesia. A lumpectomy is a form of open biopsy.


This gene, also referred to as the suppressor gene, limits growth in normal cells. It is associated with a less favorable outcome.

Palliative Care
Care is given to improve the quality of life of patients where comfort and pain management, not cure, is the goal. Often given in hospice.

A physician who identifies cells and tissues under a microscope.

Pathologist Report
The description of cells and tissues based by the pathologist’s microscopic findings. These are used to make an exact diagnosis of the type of cancer.


Around a nerve or group of nerves. Sometimes breast cancer cells grow around the little nerves that are in the breast. This is called perineural invasion.

Pre Cancerous
Cells that have started to change from their normal form and are highly suspected to develop into cancer cells.

The expected recovery. A “favorable prognosis” means that the cancer will respond to treatments. A “poor prognosis” indicates that the cancer will be hard to treat.

Radiation Therapy

The use of high-energy radiation to kill cancer cells and shrink tumors. Radiation may external, beam radiation therapy, or from radioactive material placed in the body near cancer cells (internal radiation therapy).

Radical Local Excision
Surgery to remove a tumor along with surrounding  normal tissue and possibly also. nearby lymph nodes.

Radical Lymph Node Dissection
A surgery to remove most or all of the lymph nodes that drain lymph from the area around a tumor.

Radical Mastectomy

Breast cancer surgery where chest muscles, and all of the lymph nodes under the arm are removed along with the breast.

Radiofrequency Ablation
The use of electrodes to heat and destroy abnormal tissue.

The use of x-rays or other imaging technologies, such as  ultrasound, CT scans, and to diagnose cancer.

Cancer that has returned either in the same spot as earlier, called  local recurrence, or in a distant part of the body (metastatic cancer.)


Generic name for Evista, see under Evista above.

S Phase (Synthesis phase.)

Short for the period where the cells are preparing to divide.  If a higher than normal percentage of cells are proliferating at any given time, this is considered unfavorable.

Sentinel Lymph Node
The first lymph node likely to have cancer cells from the primary tumor.

Sentinel Lymph Node Biopsy

A blue dye is injected near the tumor. The surgeon then removes the lymph node(s) that has been stained by the blue dye so that they can be examined for cancer cells of cancer cells.


Selective estrogen receptor modulators. The drugs Tamoxifen and Evista are examples of SERMs.

Side effects
Unintended negative health issues as a result of certain treatments. Common side effects of chemo therapy are fatigue, pain, nausea, vomiting, decreased blood cell counts, hair loss, and mouth sores

Spiculated Mass

Refers to image on mammogram that looks like cancer.

Staging Cancer
A grading system to decide how advance the cancer is and how best to treat it. The TNM staging system refers to:

T the size of the tumor. pT1a refers to a tumor less than 0.5 cm, T1c is a tumor less than 2 cm. T2 tumors are between2-5 cm, T3, etc.

N number of lymph nodes containing cancer cells. N-0 means surgeon can not feel lymph , pN-1a means 1-3 positive nodes. pN-1b indicates 4-9 positive nodes, pN 1c indicate more than ten lymph nodes with cancer.

M signs of metastasis (cells in other parts of the body)pM-0 no distant cells, pM1 distant cells. Often pMX is noted on pathology report which means metastasis unknown.

Based on the tumor size, the number of lymph nodes involved and distant cancer cells, the  breast cancer is stages are I,II, III and IV, with gradation in between such as IIa, IIb, IIc, etc.
Stereotactic Biopsy
A biopsy procedure involving a computer and a 3-dimensional scanning device to guide instrument to tumor site for removal of potentially cancerous tissue for examination.

Systemic Therapy
A treatment that affects the whole body not only the cancer area. For example, chemo therapy or hormone therapy


Generic name is Novaldex. An anti-cancer drug used for pre-menopausal women with estrogen positive breast cancer. Tamoxifen works by binding the estrogen

Tamoxifen belongs to a class of drugs called selective estrogen receptor modulators (SERMs), which work by blocking estrogen from binding to its receptors in the breast. This drug works as well in both premenopausal and postmenopausal women.


Generic name is taxane. Chemo therapy drug .

TRAM flap

Breast reconstruction following mastectomy using part of the stomack muscle. Not to be recommended. Instead checkout diep flap.

Tumor Burden/Tumor Load
The number of cancer cells or amount of cancer in the body, tumor load.

Tumor Debulking
Surgery to remove as much of tumor as possible, some times preceding chemotherapy sometimes to relieve pain to make patient more comfortable.

Tumor Marker
A substance released by tumor into the blood stream.. The tumor marker in breast cancer is CA 15-3.

Also called sonogram. A procedure where high-energy sound waves (ultrasound) bounce off internal tissues or organs and make echoes. These sound patterns for images that can be seen on a screen.

cancer cells that have changed a great deal from normal cells and tend to grow and spread very quickly.


A chemo therapy drug. usually given a short time.  Nerve damage is a side effect.

Wire Localization

Guided by images from a mammogram machine or an ultrasound machine, wires are inserted in the breast by a radiologist to help surgeon localize cancer spots that are not visible to the eye or possible to feel.


A chemo therapy drug,  Capecitabine,  in its generic form. Used for metastatic breast cancer and taken in pill form.

Low doses, x-rays are used to diagnose diseases. High doses, x-rays are used to treat cancer by killing cells, referred to as x-ray therapy.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Maggan April 3, 2011 at 2:06 pm

Pleas be checked by a doctor. Very unlikely you have breast cancer. But anything that worries you should be checked out by a professional.

pain and colon cancer April 26, 2013 at 6:18 pm

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